I did battle with my demons again next time I got back to the apartment, late that afternoon. Make no mistake about it, there were several of them. I mean, sure, the demon of self-doubt and I go way back and I’ve always been able to kick his ass. But then there was the demon that set my fingers on fire. And the one that made my mind go blank whenever I tried to get a song idea.
And Mr. Self Doubt had a new tactic. I know you know how to write a song, he would say, but what if this one’s different? What if this is the one that doesn’t work?
And I would say shut up, and go back to practicing. What I told myself was until I got my fingers to the point where I could play for more than five minutes without it being excruciating, I wasn’t going to get much done on the song anyway.
When it got to be too much–which was after about seven minutes, actually–I stuck my fingers in a bowl of ice water and while I was standing there I opened a drawer in the kitchen counter out of boredom. There was a singed pot holder and a small Yellow Pages directory in there. Huh.
I paged through the phone book and sure enough, there were music shops listed. Guitar shops in particular. I guess we weren’t that far from Memphis or Nashville so I shouldn’t have been surprised. They’re probably all gone now, but in those days before Amazon, small shops scattered all over the country was how a lot of things used to be sold to the people.
I tried the first one that caught my eye. It rang a few times and then a young woman’s voice answered. “Strings and Things.”
“Yeah, hi.” I realized I hadn’t really worked out what I was going to say. “I was wondering if you could give me some advice about playing the guitar?”
“Well, we do offer lessons four days a week–”
“No no, I mean, right now. I just have a question.”
“Oh. Well.” She sounded like she was worried this was going to turn into a prank or obscene phone call. “What’s the question?”
“How long does it take after a person starts practicing for the calluses to build up?”
“When you play guitar, the tips of your fingers toughen up and then it doesn’t hurt to play.”
“Well, it sounds like you know all about it.” And she sounded peeved.
“Obviously not, or I wouldn’t be asking,” I said. “Are you one of the instructors?”
“No.” Chilly. Positively chilly.
“Okay, well, thank you for your time.” I hung up before I could upset her any more. Maybe I sounded like her ex or something.
I decided my fingers were numb enough to play again for a few more minutes but when I tried again it was even more painful than before. I gave up and went back to the bowl on the counter and stuck my hand in again. And then, you know, I was standing there with the phone book still open to the page and I still didn’t have an answer to my question.
So I tried another one.
This one a guy answered. “Billy’s.”
I was a little more tentative this time. “Yeah, hi, sorry to bother you, but I am just picking up the guitar for the first time in a long time and I am trying to get some advice.”
“Well, I dunno if I can help but I can try.” I had been expecting a southern drawl but after he’d finished a sentence I could hear a pure Southern California accent. “What do you need to know, man?”
“How long until your fingers quit hurting?”
“Oh, man. Couple of weeks, I think?” I could hear the quiet, twangy sound of a steel string being plucked in the background. “Depending on how much you practice, I guess.”
“I’m not making it through more than five minutes.”
“Oh, that is rough. You’re at square one.”
“Yeah, I guess. I used to play a lot.” I felt my cheeks heat up at that, like I’d made some kind of intimate confession. “Like, really a lot.”
“Maybe you just need to slow down, then? When’d you start playing?”
“A few days ago.”
“No no, I mean originally.”
“Oh, when I was a kid. Like ten.”
“When you’re a kid your fingers are smaller and there’s less surface area.”
“Huh, I hadn’t thought of that.”
He chuckled. “Good thing you called. You want the rest of the spiel?”
“There’s a spiel?”
“Of course. There’s a spiel for everything.” He cleared his throat. “First thing, the kind of guitar that is the least painful at the start is something with steel strings and low action. That means–”
“I know what low action means. And yeah, that’s what I’m on.” Ziggy had sent the guitar that would be the absolute easiest in that regard.
“Okay, cool. Next thing, keep your fingers dry.”
“Ohhhh.” I yanked my fingers out of the bowl. “I guess that means don’t ice them.”
“Oh, man, no. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s because the water softens up the skin, and so any callus you’ve built up is not going to do its job.”
“That explains a lot.” I blew on my fingers as if I could toughen them back up again with dryness. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
“See, this is why you talk to an expert. Okay, let’s see, what else. Right. Make sure your nails are good and trimmed down. Not too short, obviously, or that’ll hurt all on its own, but, you know, they gotta be short.”
“My boss tells people sometimes to soak in apple cider vinegar when they’re done playing. I’m not so sure about that one. I mean, isn’t the vinegar going to soften up the skin same as water? I dunno. Just passing that along.”
I opened the cabinet which was mostly empty except for a couple of packets of ramen noodles. “I don’t think I have any of that, anyway.”
“Okay, good. Now the part that isn’t part of the spiel.”
“Okay. I’m listening.”
“If you get really into what you’re playing, like, your whole mind and brain and everything is totally engaged, then you won’t feel your fingers. Until you stop, that is. So the key to playing long enough to really build up the calluses is to be playing something that grabs your whole attention. So if you’re just trying to practice scales or whatever and they’re boring as shit, pick something else to play for a while. You know, whatever. Sing along to Tom Petty on your Walkman or jam out with the radio or whatever.”
“Holy shit, that is great advice.” I rubbed my fingertips on my flannel shirt. “What’s your name?”
“Marcus. What’s yours?”
“So you liked it as a kid, huh? what made you want to get back into playing again?” Marcus asked.
Wow. How to answer that question. “It was time.”
“Cool, cool. What kind of stuff do you like to play?”
“A little of everything, I guess? I first got into it playing a friend’s guitar, you know, just messing around as a kid, and before you know it I was taking classical lessons and that kind of thing.”
“Oh, so you were really serious about it.”
“You could say that.” I was starting to get a little uncomfortable, because if this conversation went on much longer I’d have to tell him who I was, but at the same time it was kind of nice to talk to someone about something other than cancer or lawsuits. “How about you? What do you like to play?”
“I’m into blues mostly. It’s why I moved here.”
“Yeah. I twigged to the fact that what I was getting was a pale shadow of the real thing. I even started a band for a while called that, but let me give you a piece of advice. Never name your band ironically.”
“You called it Pale Shadow?”
“Yeah. It’s a good name for a band, except that it isn’t, when you’re a white guy trying to play the blues.”
“Ah, got it.” Yeah, that did make it a terrible name. Adding irony didn’t make it any better. That just undermined the whole thing. “So you’re working in a guitar shop now”
“Yeah, it’s a good gig for daytimes, and then I go to blues sessions at night. I’m looking at it like a kind of apprenticeship, you know? Like going to Germany to learn blacksmithing or something.”
Like playing the “real” blues was some kind of archaic art? I didn’t think of it that way, but what did I know. It wasn’t like I could criticize him for it. I was the one who fucked off to Spain for most of a year to learn a style I didn’t know. “What are you going to do when your apprenticeship is over?”
“Probably head back to Santa Cruz, maybe make the move to LA. And then see how it’s changed me. See, this is the thing. I don’t want to be that guy.”
“That guy who is like ‘I did the authentic thing and so now I have the badge of authenticity tattoed on my butt.'” He made a fart sound-effect. “You know? Because there are those assholes. You know, who go study kung fu on a mountain in China somewhere and then come back to the States and wear silk pajamas all day long and want you to call them master while they sell you whatever they’re selling you.”
“Meaning you won’t teach blues lessons?”
“Well, maybe I would, to make rent, but that’s not the point. The point is that the music shapes you because it goes through you. I’m not here to become a copycat or to, like, reinvent the blues or anything. The blues is doing just fiiiine without me. But I’m soaking in it until its in my bones, and then I’ll go do my own thing and it’ll change what I would’ve done without it.”
“But that’s true of any music you play, anyone you play with. It all goes through you and changes you as it does.”
“Yeah, totally. I guess that’s what I’m saying. I came here to change my musical diet and I won’t know the long term effects until I leave.”
“Yeah, good luck with that,” I said.
“Hang on a sec.” He covered the phone but I could hear a man’s voice with a nagging tone. “Yeah, all right Mr. Driscoll. This guy just called for advice is all and we got to talking.”
Mr. Driscoll replied with what might have been: you always get to talking.
“All right, I’m back, but I better get back to work here,” Marcus said briskly, then after a short pause went on in a more laconic tone. “As you probably guessed, that was the boss. He’s like chop-chop, but it’s not like there’s a lot for me to do. Still, I guess I better go.”
“Yeah, I guess I better go, too. Thanks for the advice. And for talking,” I said, even if I wasn’t sure how to feel about him basically confessing that he felt weird about being a white guy playing the blues. On the one hand he said he didn’t want to be “that guy,” while basically telling me that’s exactly what he was…? I was sure there was more to his story but I probably wasn’t going to hear it.
“You’re welcome. I figure any guy who is cold calling a music shop for advice is probably hella lonely.”
And I figured Marcus was probably the one who was “hella” lonely, but both could be true. “Thanks again.”
The phone rang again seconds after I hung up and I wondered if he had some kind of caller ID and was ringing me back. But no, this time it was Bart, who confirmed Ziggy had asked him to ship the guitar to me in the first place, and told me he thought the apple cider vinegar thing was a myth, but that I should try rubbing alcohol. It would dry out the skin and help harden it up.
I was sure I could get some at the hospital.